(Update- I originally posted this in 2014, but decided to add a few pictures and change the date to 2020 because I thought people might enjoy it and it was kind of buried in the old entries- it also became the text of issue 32.5 of my zine which many people get as a freebie with their shop orders.)
This was my April piece for Storyboard , a writing site with monthly prompts run by a friend. I couldn’t think of a story idea, so I wrote a kind of essay instead.The theme this month is “Ichi-go ichi-e”: a never again moment. I couldn’t think of a story, so I decided to talk a little about ways other writers have handled the theme. I suppose you could call this a casual essay. I’m afraid it won’t be closely argued or meticulously footnoted, and it is quite loosely put together, but maybe it will give people some good recommendations of things to read.
Photographers talk about the “decisive moment”. Henri Cartier Bresson said that “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Oops! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever”. Perhaps this is true of photojournalism, but does human experience actually work in that way?
Psychogeography tries to explore physical locations through subjective means rather than in terms of geographical facts. Practitioners explore and reconsider their surroundings, trying to see even the most mundane of places from new angles using various techniques such as photography, drawing and writing to find the specific things that make that specific place that and not another, especially considering the overlapping historical factors that lead to a place being a certain way.
For example, people say that what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. I haven’t been there myself. (Or perhaps I have been there, but I forgot because whatever I did stayed there. I’m sorry to my forgotten drive-through husband if that is the case.) If you take the phrase literally, though, does that mean Las Vegas is full of ghosts? Ghosts playing cards, drinking overpriced drinks, watching Liberace, all on a loop, crossing over each other in thick layers. People who believe in ghosts claim that they are more likely to be present in places where people do the same thing day in, day out, creating some kind of ghostly rut (personally I do not believe in ghosts). People do do much the same kind of things in hotels and casinos, so perhaps there’s something in this theory. A composite ghost made of lots of people doing the same thing in the same place on different occasions. The opposite of a never again moment.
In the film Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961) the same scenes happen again and again in a luxurious, yet slightly oppressive hotel. A man approaches a woman, and tells her that they met at Marienbad the previous year, and they had agreed to run away together. The woman claims they have never met before. The man plays a game of Nim using matches with another man, who appears to be the woman’s husband, and loses. The same scenes happen again and again; but with different settings and nuances from the actors, and new information from intervening scenes they have a different significance and meaning each time, gradually building up a story.
Raymond Queneau, whose Oulipo writing group influenced the creation of Last Year at Marienbad, did something similar in Exercises in Style, taking a short, uneventful vignette of an annoying man on the bus and re-writing it in 99 different inventive ways. The whole gamut of different literary styles and moods, and results of Oulipo games and ventures into the surreal are covered. “There was a guy of around 26 on the bus” becomes in the style of “hesitations” (in opposition to the style of precision on the facing page where everything is described in terms of numbers and measurements) “There was . . . but was what there, though? Eggs, carpets, radishes? Skeletons? Yes, but with their flesh still round them, and alive. I think that’s how it was”. The same basic story becomes completely different based on the manner of telling. Perhaps the versions of the story as told by an Italian with a poor grasp of French, or via sonnet are more likely than the radishes and skeletons version, or the version with all the nouns replaced with the noun seven places below in the dictionary (an Oulipo game called N+7) but they all still create a small valid reality within the realms of the story, and each one is entirely different from the others.
How do you know what is likely and what is not? Actuaries know what the likelihood of things happening or not happening is, and how much it will cost if it does or doesn’t happen. They have books of tables and complex mathematical formulas for working it out. Perhaps they have all the answers, if you want all your answers in terms of odds and figures. Their work relies on working out what the commonality of events is, and which are unique and statistically unlikely. I don’t know if this would give you a solider grip on reality due to having to work out the likelihood of events actually happening, or whether it would unmoor you a little spending all your time turning hypothetical events into numbers. Ever since I found out that being an actuary was an actual job, I have also wondered if they find themselves looking people up and down despite themselves, and wondering how much they’re worth dead. I would like to meet an actuary (hopefully I am worth more alive than dead). Having not worked in the insurance or bookmaking industries though I have never come across one. Wikipedia claims there are only 9,000 in the UK. Wikipedia also helpfully provides a list of fictional actuaries. They are all either very stereotypically dull in the way of screen accountants (in real life I have met some interesting and delightful accountants in my time), or secret masters of the universe. I wonder if it is possible to be both. That’s probably the best way to keep it quiet.
Secret offices full of actuaries working out the likelihood of something happening, and then quietly tweaking the probabilities to make something happen or not happen in reality sounds like something from a Jorge Luis Borges story. For the uninitiated, the Argentinian writer wrote philosophical short stories, mostly only a few pages long, that you wish were full-length novels.
The Lottery in Babylon (full text of the story behind the link) imagines if all aspects of life were governed by a formal lottery, with a new draw dictating player’s lives for the next 60 days. “Everyone knows that the people of Babylon are fond of logic and even symmetry . . . . Is it not ridiculous for chance to dictate someone’s death and have the circumstances of that death – secrecy, publicity, the fixed time of an hour or a century – not subject to chance? . . No decision is final, all branch into others . . Under the beneficent influence of the [lottery] Company, our customs are saturated with chance.” (Ficciones). In Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote a man who has never read Don Quixote researches the life of Cervantes so thoroughly that he finds himself writing a word for word perfect version of Don Quixote, which the narrator of the story claims is far richer than the original, because it can take into account all the events and ideas that have happened since the 1600s.
Borges said that “It may be stated that all children are by definition, are explorers, and that to discover the camel is in itself no stranger than to discover a mirror or water or a staircase” (Book of Imaginary Beings). Italo Calvino, another member of the Oulipo circle, wrote something similar in Invisible Cities: ”elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveller recognises the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have.” (Invisible Cities). The book is a series of short descriptions of cities recounted to Kublai Khan by Marco Polo after touring the Khan’s empire. Each description however, is actually about Marco Polo’s home city of Venice, viewed or portrayed in a different way, and with the advantage or disadvantage of distance in both miles and time.
“How well I would write if I were not here!” (If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller) Calvino also writes in his novel about the experience of reading. When I was younger, I used to explore the exciting kingdom of the ceiling using a mirror as the narrator also does at one point in the book. If you take a medium sized mirror, hold it flat in the palms of your hand, and then walk looking down into the mirror, your brain is fooled into thinking that you are walking on the ceiling. You’re there and you’re not there. Walking on the ceiling of my house was much better than the experience of walking on the carpet, even thought the reflection was nothing more than plain white artex or plaster. Somehow doing the same in the garden with the sky was never as satisfying. Perhaps it’s the fact that the ceiling of your house is still recognisable as the same layout of rooms, so is half recognisable and half alien, like the house in Alice Through the Looking Glass (one of my favourite books at the time, although I was, and remain too bad at chess to solve the puzzle).
T.S. Eliot talks about “the passage which we did not take, towards the door we never opened” in the first poem of the Four Quartets, a whole set of poems on the theme of time and memory. “Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended, are removed, destroyed or in their place is an open field, or a factory or a by-pass”. “Words strain, crack and sometimes break under the burden”. (Also, I would like to remind people of the important fact that Eliot used to bring whoopee cushions to liven things up at the duller meetings at Faber & Faber).
On the opposite corner from Eliot’s long flow of time that defeats words and buildings, Christie Malry in Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry by B.S. Johnson (no relation to Boris) knows exactly what constitutes a specific event and can quantify it in numbers. Christie is an apprentice accountant at a biscuit company. He finds his work dull, and life in general unfair, so he starts to take his revenge on the world, keeping meticulous double-entry accounts of his actions (which form an important part of the story) to make sure he keeps the action and reaction balanced. For example the general unpleasantness of the bank manager he has to deal with is debited for £1 of aggravation and socialism not being given a real chance is debited at £311,398 but stealing stationery from work is credited at £0.06 of satisfaction and as pleasant co-worker brings £0.28 of satisfaction. However the aggravation debt to Christie starts mounting up, and he has to start taking drastic action against the world to rebalance the books. He probably missed his calling as an actuary in an imaginary Borges story.
I’m sure Foucault also has something insightful yet long-windedly indigestible to say about all this, but I recently proof-read my friend’s anthropology essay on him, and that is quite enough Foucault for me for a long time.
“Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered”: (If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller)The Aleph– Jorge Luis Borges The Book of Imaginary Beings– Jorge Luis Borges Fictions– Jorge Luis Borges If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller– Italo Calvino Invisible Cities– Italo Calvino Collected Poems 1909-1962– T.S. Eliot Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry– B.S. Johnson Exercices de Style– Raymond Queneau (there is also an English translation, which is very good, but doesn’t have the panache of the original)